Thursday, January 14, 2016

On Worshiping The Same God

A friend of mine helped me think though some issues regarding whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The issue is currently a hot potato in some circles because of professor Harris, her comments regarding wearing a hijab, and Wheaton’s reaction. It seems to me that the simple understanding of the issue is that Christians and Muslims (and all other worshipers of drastically different religions) believe in different Gods, but my friend raised a point held by the Catholic church and many philosophers and theologians that is helping me clarify the issue for myself.

[In addition to that, I have removed a previous post, not because I disagree with my conclusions, but because I have decided I was a bit strident. In reading several of the reactions against Wheaton’s actions against Harris, some of them have become simply disingenuous. Some are talking as if NOBODY EVER has actually held the ridiculous belief that Muslims and Christians worship different gods. I didn’t want to be one of those kinds of voices. So I wrote something much more involved and hopefully more thoughtful.]

This point of view is that Christians and Muslims believe in the same God and that this is the most obvious understanding of this issue. In two recent articles, both written by respected theist philosophers, the position is defended with the argument that Christians believe there is actually only one God, so therefore everyone who believes in God or worships God believes in the same God, but has different beliefs about that God [Beckwith, Rae]. And Protestant theologians, one no less than Mirislav Volf in a recent article and several tweets, have expressed the same opinion. It is commonly accepted, and not controversial in many circles, to say that two people can have two different sets of beliefs about the same thing or person (and one of them even be very wrong) and for both of them to be referring to the same thing or person. Two people can "point at" the same thing/individual, have conflicting accounts of what attributes belong to them, and yet refer to the same thing/individual. Both articles linked above raise this point and give examples.

My position is still that Christians and Muslims “believe in different Gods,” but that statement needs some work to make sense in light of the Same God (SG) position described above. I want to try to make two basic points, the second leading to a third. First, which is the simplest understanding of what two people believe - that they believe in the same God though with conflicting accounts, or that they believe in two different Gods? Second, what is the theological data we have to work with in the Christian scriptures? And third, what of worship and conversion?

It was argued in both Rae’s and Beckwith’s articles that the simplest position to hold is that two worshipers are pointing at the same God and yet hold differing beliefs about that God. My intuition is exactly the opposite. In one article written by a theologian who happens to be a convert from Islam to Christianity, he said his first intuition about this issue was that when converting he was still worshiping the same God but with a different understanding, but the more he came to know the God of the Christian Bible he changed his mind. Rae and Beckwith argue that in order to hold the position that we worship different Gods, one would have to do some pretty significant semantic work and even develop a robust theory of worship and how it works.

It seems to me that the semantic work is applied one step beyond the assertion, "they believe in different Gods." The conclusion, “they believe in different Gods,” can be arrived at by a very simple question like, “do you believe Jesus is God?” The rebuttal is the semantic move, "No, in fact, because Christians believe there is only one God, they actually worship the same God, but often attribute different attributes to God." The rebuttal relies on the train of thought that because two people can apply different attributes to the same person and still refer to the same person, and that there is actually only one God, these religions are pointing to the same God in different ways. But what if they are not pointing to the same God, but using the word "God" to talk about what they believe in? This, it seems to me, is just as easily the case, and can be discovered given some fairly straightforward inquiry regarding what different religions sincerely believe about what they refer to when they talk about God. Using one example cited in the articles linked, it is entirely possible for two people to talk about "Thomas Jefferson" using different attributes, and given the chance to point to the person they mean, they will point to two different people. In this case they both used the same word/phrase as their referent, but one (maybe both) were actually wrong about the referent, not the attributes. Pointing to two different Thomas Jeffersons has its theological equivalent in describing conflicting and contradictory attributes of God.

Referring to the same thing with different attributes is not the only way people disagree. They can refer to two different things with the same attributes or two different referents with overlapping attributes. To reduce religious propositional conflict to just the first form of difference might oversimplify the situation.

In addition, some semantic work might need to be done to explain how the phrase, "believe in," works in order to support the assertion that Muslims and Christians "believe in the same God." The articles linked above deal with the "same God" portion of the phrase, and I am sure someone somewhere has worked on the first phrase. Whether someone has or not, it needs to be done. Belief, roughly speaking, is an internal adherence and some significant level of commitment to a proposition. Christians and Muslims propose very different things about God, so from the start it should be pretty easy to see that they literally do not "believe in" the same God. Now are we at a place where the burden of work is on SG to tell us why two people who believe in different things actually believe in the same thing whether they say so or not?

Second, the theological data, it seems to me, allows for both to be possible.

"You shall have no other gods before me." God, Exodus 20:3.

Thinking primarily about a theology of idolatry, the worship of idols seems to be treated in two broad fashions in Scripture. First, it is the case the God warns against worshiping him so badly that a person has slipped into idolatry (Malachi 1 and 2 are examples). In this case, we may be able to say that two people can worship the same God and say they believe in the same God while at least one of them has so perverted worship that they have slipped into idolatry.

But the second, and what seems to be the primary warning, is idolatry in the sense that people literally worship other gods. In this case people can worship things, other people, themselves, or spiritual beings as god. In any event, the theological data regarding idolatry is focused in the first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me." The commandment is not (and I don't believe can be interpreted to mean), "You shall not assert false attributes to me when actually worshiping me." The biblical worldview posits a universe of spiritual beings that humans have often mistaken as "God" and believed in and worshiped as gods. So, of course, people can believe in/worship different gods in the sense that they attribute ultimate divine worth to beings who are not God. They have been doing that for millennia.

This raises another point that Rae mentioned in his article. He stated that to assert that religions worship different gods would require a well-developed theology of worship. While that ought to be done regardless, I wonder if the case is exactly the opposite. The debate right now is about Muslims and Christians, and seems to be fuzzy around the edges because they are both Abrahamic faiths. Add Judaism to the list, and it seems fairly easy to say that these religions worship the same God, just differently. Given SG can we justifiably take it another step to say that Hindus and Christians worship the same God? If so, then Hindus substitute billions of gods with conflicting personalities for the unity of the Christian deity. That difference is pretty drastic, and worship in those two very different faiths would need to be explained to hold to SG. What about belief systems that straddle the religious/philosophical fence such as Buddhism and Confuciansim? In these systems ultimate reality is at direct odds with Christian beliefs about ultimate reality, leading some to even label these systems as atheistic. And yet (at least Buddhism) has a form of worship and beliefs about ultimate reality and salvation. How can both worship the same God? That would need to be explained. Then, at the extreme end of this train of thought is atheism. Atheism has been described as a kind of worship by both theologians and thoughtful atheists, and not without merit. If atheists worship (human potential, science, technology, transhumanism, etc.) and Christians worship, then SG implies that they worship the same God.

Are we at a point with SG where there is an inherent conflict, if not internal contradiction? A Christian who says there is a God and an atheist who says there is no god both worship the same god.

This raises a fascinating question for me- what about conversion? Does a convert believe that they are now worshiping the true God as opposed to a false god? Or do they believe they are worshiping the same God, only now they are worshipping more properly? And if SG is true it seems we are stuck with saying that in reality they were worshiping the same God all along and this seems incongruent with how both the OT and NT treat other religions and the move from one to another.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Correcting the Scoffing Fool

Proverbs 9:7-8 “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you."

Our first reaction to a passage like this ought to be a self-reflective question like, “How do I respond to correction and reproof?” I should begin by wondering about myself instead of immediately thinking of everyone I think is a fool. Does my reaction to legitimate correction incur anger or hatred toward the one who corrects me, or does it begin a process of self-improvement, and even thankfulness and love? If I am not open to correction, I may think of myself as basically perfect and not in need of correction, even if I do not think in those exact words.

A second insight from a passage like this is that proper correction from people who love us and/or are wiser than we are – or simply see something we do not - is part of growing in wisdom and maturity. We ought not journey on toward Christ without people who can speak into our lives about areas we may be blind to, or areas that are too sensitive for us to deal with personally. I am an imperfect person subject to a range of faults and I should learn how to react when I hear good correction. (I don’t like this anymore than anyone else, and I receive good correction more often than I would like.)

A third reaction can be something like this: It may be better to watch as the storm passes by, does its damage, and see if anyone is willing and ready to help pick up the pieces of wasted lives and ruined time. In the heat of the moment, or in the throes of passion, or in the wave of powerful cultural mythologies, people are often completely deaf to correction. And more than that, they are often hostile to an opinion that is simply different than the one they find fashionable at the time. Sometimes all you have to do is say something like, “I disagree,” and that is enough to get you labeled as a hateful ignoramus who needs to get with the times. But Solomon shows us that this is nothing new and that you really might do better keeping your mouth shut and waiting for the wise person to show up or for wisdom to come crashing into someone’s life.

This is hard to do, however, when we watch parts of the church do this. There are plenty of well-meaning individuals who, for all kinds of reasons, neglect wisdom and truth for powerful mythologies and label their causes as “what Jesus would be doing right now.” But cultural conditions are such that they may not receive correction. After all, they have the weight of conventional wisdom at their back, so why listen to voices preemptively categorized as unintellectual or outdated?

So, in the end, I need to first discern whether I am the scoffing fool, and then patiently pray for those who will not now listen to wisdom.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

At Advent May We Never Fail To Be Thankful

Trafalgar Square Tree

While preparing for Advent this week I ran across this beautiful story I had never heard before. Every year Norway sends a tree - a huge tree often groomed for years - to England to say thank you for their role in preserving and liberating their nation during WWII. For years they waited under tyranny for their freedom to come, and once it did they have never failed to say thank you.

During Advent we are reminded that we wait in the now and not-yet. Our world is broken and full of sin, but the Messiah has come. Abundant life and freedom have been given to whosoever believes in him for this life now. Jesus the King was born. And yet we still wait for the complete coming of his kingdom when he will reign in righteousness and justice, and of his peace there will be no end.

Advent allows us to never fail to be thankful for what has been given, and what is promised and sure to come.

HT: Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, The Time Is Now

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Links with Little Context

Bedeviled by my Wife's Dementia
By Douglas Groothuis
"Through these trials, Becky struggled to write and edit. As her health declined, each work became more difficult than the previous one. After writing two books, she labored for four years co-editing a major work on the theology of gender, contributing a long and carefully argued chapter. That was the last thing she wrote for publication. But page after page of my writing—books, reviews, essays, and academic papers—were marked by her corrections, questions, and deletions. We seldom argued over any of it. She made my work better, and we both knew it. Only God, Becky, and I know how much of her wisdom is woven into my work.

But she did not edit this essay."

Perception and the Cartesian Theater
by Michael Egnor
[Warning: Philosophy Ahead. Materialist and non-Materialist philosophies make a difference.]

"Locating perception in the sense organs and/or in the brain is a central fallacy of modern neuroscience and philosophy of mind. The study of perception -- central to cognitive science -- is itself unmoored from reality by the implicit or explicit presumption of the Cartesian theater. A scientist trapped in a Cartesian theater can have no sure knowledge of external reality, which is the very object of science, and even the study of the Cartesian theater itself entails merely an infinite regress of Cartesian theaters, a Lowes multiplex of subjectivity and exclusion from reality."

How Yale University Became a Savage, Bigoted Tribe
by John Zmirak

"America is ruled by a political and media elite that takes as self-evident truths a long list of outrageous fallacies. Like post-hypnotic suggestions, these false beliefs linger beneath the surface of lazy minds. They wouldn’t withstand ten minutes of sustained intellectual argument. Luckily for them, they’ll never have to. These cobbled-together opinions aren’t passed on through reasoned discourse, and rarely have to make their way through the rational sieve of the mind. Instead, they travel from person to person on a transmission belt of fashionable sentiment and self-congratulation, attracting new subscribers by dangling the hope of membership in a self-selected elite of “decent” people who hold “enlightened” ideas that make them sophisticated and praiseworthy. These views lurk in bumper stickers and status updates, are transmitted in winks and nods, retweets and likes, rarely brushing against the sharp edge of opposition. When you dare to contradict such a precept, its believer won’t hunker down to engage you. He’ll roll his eyes, nod condescendingly, and silently cross your name off his “list” of respectable human beings. The dialogue ends there."

Monday, December 07, 2015

Like a Tree Planted by Streams of Living Water

What a cacophony of pressures is the pastor’s life! What a job exposed to the conflicting expectations of people whose whims and moods change! What a vocation where many of the best-selling authors write books about “leadership” and volunteer management as though they were writing a manual for an international conglomerate of toothpaste makers, and simultaneously the prophets warn against such crass reductionism of the pastoral task.

The moment a pastor feels at ease with the prophet’s words, the pressures of week to week volunteer management and “leadership” raise their heads. It’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole against Cerberus.

I want to pastor souls and see humans made in God’s image grow in that image. I want to see them find healing – deep, real healing like they cannot get anywhere else but in Christ. I want to disciple and pray for people. I am unwaveringly committed to expositing Scripture every change I get while the “bigger” church across the way has chosen to use Star Wars for their Advent series. Seriously. I want to apply my vocation in the ways I believe Scripture lays it out for shepherds of souls, but some of those souls are rarely around. And when I come into contact with them, many are far too happy for a glancing conversation and empty promises.

Even when I feel like I know what a pastor is supposed to do, don’t I need others to know as well so we can get along doing God’s work together? Should I be concerned about that? If they don’t know, is that my fault?

I grow more and more convinced of the necessity of the Church’s role in our world as the bearer of the knowledge of God – both in what we talk about when we are together and how we live our lives. But very few seem similarly convinced. And I mean pastors and churches. Should I be concerned about that? Is it even my job to be concerned about that?

I will wake up striving to be at ease in the sovereign grace of God instead of trying to make myself at ease with my ability to manipulate people, programs, or budgets. I will pray more. I am more and more thankful for faithfulness and endurance when I see it. I am more and more thankful all the time for God’s great gifts of family and friends.

This Advent I will meditate on what it means to wait on and work for an all-good, all-benevolent, and all-powerful promise fulfiller.

I want to be like the tree planted by the streams of living water whose leaves never wither and who bears his fruit in his season.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

One of the World's Great Cataclysms Produced Two of its Great Authors

I read a lot of books. I read a lot of history, theology, biography, and philosophy. I cannot remember the last time I wanted a book to be longer that it was, but that is what happened to me in the last pages of Laconte's book. I believe the most useful kind of biography is one that pays careful attention to the history of ideas passing through the life of the subject. This means a good biography will not only mention historical and philosophical context, but find significant ways to relate it to what happened in the life or lives under scrutiny. This book does a marvelous job of doing just that.

I found myself overwhelmed with Laconte's description of the setting leading up to the Great War and the blood-letting facts of the War itself. It does not take much effort to overwhelm an attentive reader with the horrors of the world's first mechanized and modern war, but Laconte does a wonderful job of laying just enough groundwork to let the reader understand what it would mean for both Tolkien and Lewis to have been in the thick of some of the worst fighting. The Western world was awash in trust in the progress of humanity and all that we could achieve under our own steam when the War To End All Wars turned that optimism into deep and abiding pessimism at what humans are capable to doing to each other.

So, how do two of the English language's greatest authors not succumb to that humanistic nihilism, and instead turn to the Christian faith and hope in their work? In many ways, this is the track of the book as Laconte traces their faith, their friendship, and their writing. Throughout the book, he is able to relate the realities of WWI to the themes and characters of Tolkien's and Lewis' works. Laconte discusses the much neglected topic of friendship through what is possibly the most literarily productive friendship in the 20th century. Both authors know loss and grief and fold those lessons inexorably into their fictional works. Both of them know what it costs to overcome evil and pursue the good. Both of them know how hope in Christ works in a world full of false hope in human progress. The battlefields of France shaped those characters and stories. Their friendship shaped each other's work. And their faith becomes stronger than the humanism all around them.

If this review was helpful, please say so on Amazon.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Opposing Evil is Hard. Sometimes, Very Hard.

If I name something as evil, a necessary corollary is the moral duty to oppose it.

When you name something as evil, that label comes with necessary moral obligations. Because of the very nature of evil, when you call something evil you are saying that it ought to be opposed where it can be, stopped when it can be, and that you will oppose and stop it where you have the ability to do so. This is an inherent and necessary moral obligation with evil. If you pick up a single coin it has two sides; if you name something evil and flip the coin over, the other face is the moral obligation to oppose it. It follows that the greater the evil, the greater the moral burden to oppose it. And it also follows that the greater the evil, the greater the possible cost at opposing it.

So, when a culture looks radical and murderous evil in the eye and cannot name it as evil, what is going on? Simultaneously, what is going on when a culture looks at an evil and mislabels it in the light of clear facts to the contrary?  The refusal to name it as evil is a sign of moral weakness or even turpitude. And over time the refusal to name real evils as evils turns into a corroded ethical system and becomes the inability to name real evils as evil.

Yet, the human is incapable of living in a world without recognizing some things as right and some things as wrong (it is simply the way we are created). So what does the person who is incapable of naming real evil do? They put the label of real evil on either minor evils or things that are not evil. This is one of the universal actions of the human intellect – we cannot avoid doing it no matter how tolerant we think we are – and it is the move that allows most of the great evils in human history to do the most damage. While the bull is charging the crowd, these folks would have us worried about the mouse in the corner.

For example, our current Federal Administration looks at the same evil we all do, perpetrated by Islamic radicals who (almost always) are heard yelling, “Allah is Great!” and hesitates to the point of foolishness to name it correctly. Two current favorite fallback positions are to call that kind of evil either “workplace violence” or “gun violence.”* The first fallback makes extraordinary evil seem common and easily done by any properly disgruntled employee, and the second is a self-serving political ploy. Both moves serve to distract millions from the root of the evil, and thus allow those in power to avoid dealing with the evil altogether. Simultaneously they raise other, much more debatable or minor evils, to the fore acting as if they have done something about terrorism by addressing their politically convenient evil while not actually doing anything about terrorism at all.

Take this one step further and we get what happens in parts of the cultural left. When Islamic radicals kill dozens of people, they step in front of cameras or turn to their keyboards and say that Christians are as dangerous as Islamic radicals. No facts are given because no facts can possibly be given in support of such dangerous foolishness. In fact, lies are told to support this meme. Hitler was not a Christian. But now that we know how naming evil works, we know at least one reason why these people will stare at real, murderous evil, and name the peaceful among them, and even the victim, as evil. The cost of calling a Christian evil is far, far less than calling an Islamic terrorist evil. In fact, in Progressive, elitist circles, calling Christians evil is haute couture. You are the smart gal in the room if you manage to slip that socially acceptable lie into a conversation. If you want to fit in, why utter an unacceptable truth? (Another theory of mine – everything is high school. Peer pressure does just as much intellectual and moral damage in our 40s and 50s as it does in our teens, if not more.)

Part of the philosophical power of Christian theology is that it predicts this kind of behavior for us and thus helps us avoid it if we are wise. If we are conversant in our theology and reasonably faithful to it, we are not at all surprised that the human heart is capable of naming evil good and good evil. We are equally not surprised when humans are willing to make mincemeat of other, less fortunate, humans for personal gains in power. It is all there for the attentive mind to see. But if Christians are the bad guys, who wants to listen to them?  

*Talking about gun control and gun violence today is a very popular and hotly debated issue. It is true that evil and mentally unhinged people do violence with guns. But we need to be much more careful in our thinking than we typically are in this debate. Imagine a widget that, in the hands of craftsmen, does much good, but in the hands of cruel novices, does much damage. If we are smart, we would want to limit the use of that widget to craftsmen; the morally significant variable in the equation is not the widget but the person wielding it. It is no different with guns. We can have a legitimate debate about who ought to own guns and how, but to make guns the morally significant detail (and yes, often the only variable discussed), is to miss the point and to miss an opportunity to talk about where the evil really lies. It becomes a form of intellectual dishonesty, and in cases of real ideological evil, it becomes dangerous.